Easy dog walks. They are something we usually expect when bringing in a canine family member. Dogs are easy, simple creatures after all and so, as long as we treat them right, there is no reason to expect anything other than easy dog walks. This is inaccurate, in a number of ways. As our understanding and study of canine psychology grows, so does our concept of the extent of canine individuality and personality. We now know far more about the emotional capacity of our dogs, thanks in large part to the work of Gregory Berns, a professor at Emory University in the USA, on the Dog Project, training dogs using positive reinforcement to wear ear protection and lie still enough for MRI scans to be run while they are awake.
How is the concept of easy dog walks connected to this knowledge of the existence of canine emotion?
Easy dog walks are something that feels like a dream to those people sharing their lives with a dog who finds the world a difficult place. One of the complicated, complex individuals that falls under the umbrella of a ‘reactive dog’. Once one of these special dogs has entered our lives, we very quickly need to become aware of canine emotions and the effects they can have on the dog.
Reactive behaviours are rooted in fear, that ancient and primitive emotion designed to ensure the dog will survive their immediate environment. The stimuli that our dogs react to, their triggers, are things in their environment, often things that usually considered utterly normal and safe by others. These stimuli trigger the emotion of fear, leading to dogs trying to create distance between them and the scary thing. If dogs cannot remove themselves from the scary thing, they may try making a display of fear-based aggression. If that works and the fear trigger goes away, there is a strong chance that if the situation arises again, the dog will repeat the behaviour. Dogs do what works, and every time they do the same thing and it continues to work, the behaviour becomes more cemented into place.
Once we understand that dogs feel fear, and how that affects them, we can start to educate ourselves on what we can do to lessen the impact of that fear, working towards the aim of increasingly easy dog walks.
We do this by learning how to tell our dogs are beginning to experience stress, way before they feel the need to protect themselves and react. Once we can recognise the early signs, we can start to work on changing the emotional reaction to the trigger, removing the fear association and replacing it with something more pleasurable, working towards being able to share the environment with the trigger without the dog feeling scared and defensive.
This path towards easy dog walks is not a quick one, and it is not always smooth sailing along the way. With education on canine body language, the psychology and physiology of canine fear, and plenty of patience and empathy, easy dog walks are achievable and walking with our dogs can become far closer to the pleasure we would all like it to be.
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